Tackling the post-Thanksgiving stretch: Who are the Super Bowl contenders?

Thanksgiving is the time to be thankful for what you have.

For me, like many, that includes a wonderful family, a great group of friends, football (of course), and food – and tons of it, I might add. (I stuffed myself on Thursday.)

Thanksgiving also feels like an unofficial end of fall/beginning of winter, and according to Bill Belichick, the NFL season doesn’t really begin until the holiday has passed.

“As coach says, football season starts after Thanksgiving,” Patriots long-time team captain Matthew Slater once told the media.

With the extension to a 17-game season this year, it truly does feel like there’s a whole ’nother campaign ahead for these teams. 

So how can we correctly identify the Super Bowl contenders out of the current muddled mess of standings? You can’t, really. You just have to guess. Kidding. There’s some telltale signs to split these teams up.

Let’s get right to it.

🦃  The easiest place to start when assessing teams that may make some noise in January, is to begin with the NFC. There are five teams — Arizona, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Dallas and the L.A. Rams — who are legitimate contenders to win the conference. Then, there are probably five teams — Minnesota, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Carolina, New Orleans — who are fighting for two wild card spots, and if they were to even win one playoff game on the road in the Wild Card round, it would be miraculous. Things could change from now until January, but this seems pretty set in stone when it comes to the NFC.

🦃 It’s hard to separate the “big” five in the NFC at the moment, but if I had to pick three out of the five to make an ultra-serious push at a trip to Los Angeles for Super Bowl 56, it would start with a team stockpiled with talent that could stay put, in the Rams, along with the Buccaneers and Packers. The Rams suffered two straight bad losses before their bye week, and now they’ll head to Green Bay on Sunday, where we should learn a lot. The Bucs are still battling injuries, but are starting to get healthier on both sides of the ball with tight end Rob Gronkowski and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting returning to the lineup last Monday. The Rams and Buccaneers are loaded with talented players, which should prove valuable down the stretch. The Packers have built up a solid defense, which along with Aaron Rodgers, will keep them in contention. The Cardinals have fared okay with Colt McCoy filling in for Kyler Murray at quarterback, and their defense has been better than expected this year, but my gut tells me they’ll slide just a little as the season progresses. The Cowboys looked like a team of destiny about a month ago. Dak Prescott is still playing well, and their defense, now ripe with playmakers such as cornerback Trevon Diggs (eight interceptions) and rookie Micah Parsons (nine sacks) has improved, but it’s still an issue, as evident by the Las Vegas Raiders’ 36-33 win in Dallas in overtime on Thanksgiving. Dallas should still win the NFC East, but cracks are starting to show.

🦃 Now, to the AFC. Never in my twenty-plus years of watching the NFL, have I ever seen a conference more up for grabs. That favors teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, who have Patrick Mahomes at quarterback and ended their early-season skid, and the New England Patriots, who equipped with their solid rookies (Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, etc.), and several offseason veteran reinforcements (Matt Judon, Hunter Henry, etc.) are back to playing like the early-dynasty New England teams of the early 2000s, which is just how Bill Belichick likes it. Both teams have experienced coaching staffs and players who have recently won championships, making any January run less daunting for them than it would be for most teams. After that, Baltimore and Buffalo look like viable contenders when they’re playing at their best. Each team has had great wins, as well as several uninspired performances, some of which have burned them. They’re both inconsistent clubs, but they will be tough outs. After that, there’s the AFC South teams. Much has been said about the “devaluing” of running backs in the modern NFL, but these Titans are a case study on just how much a phenomenal running back can help their team. Their offense lives off outside-zone rushing and play-action passing. Tennessee is averaging almost three yards per attempt less on play-action passes with Derrick Henry out, as Ryan Tannehill struggles. Of course, Henry is an all-time talent rushing the football, but he is a Titan, and the Titans need him back in the playoffs to make any realistic Super Bowl push. Then, there’s the Colts, and their stout offensive line and running game with Jonathan Taylor, and their fast and physical defense that has added a slew of man coverage principles and new tendencies to what once was an elite zone pass coverage team. The Colts, much like the Patriots have the formula for January success, but like New England, will need their quarterback, Carson Wentz in their case, to make a few big-time throws and have at least one or two big games for them to roll to Los Angeles. It certainly is possible. Wentz is extremely inconsistent, but the talent is there, making them the ultimate dark horse candidate throughout the league. After that, I don’t seen any realistic options of teams that could make a serious Super Bowl run. I like what the Pittsburgh Steelers are about, but they don’t have enough offensive production to make a run. The Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Chargers both may make the playoffs, and each squad should be even better next season with 2020 draft class QBs Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert steadily improving into star-worthy passers, but these squads aren’t ready for a serious run.

THE BETTER HALF

(With a short two-day stint until we get the meat of the Week 12 schedule, I’ll hold off on any additional blurbs in my power rankings before we see more of the first week in a post-Thanksgiving 2021 season. The home stretch is here! Enjoy.)

1. Los Angeles Rams (7-3) (Last week: 5). 

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3) (Last week: 6).

3. Green Bay Packers (8-3) (Last week: 2).

4. Arizona Cardinals (9-2) (Last week: 7). 

5. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) (Last week: 9). 

6. New England Patriots (7-4) (Last week: 10). 

7. Tennessee Titans (8-3) (Last week: 1). 

8. Buffalo Bills (7-4) (Last week: 4). 

9. Baltimore Ravens (7-3) (Last week: 8). 

10. Dallas Cowboys (7-4) (Last week: 3). 

11. Indianapolis Colts (6-5) (Last week: 13). 

12. San Francisco 49ers (5-5) (Last week: 15).

13. Los Angeles Chargers (6-4) (Last week: NR). 

14. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4-1) (Last week: 11). 

15. Minnesota Vikings (5-5) (last week: NR). 

16. Cleveland Browns (6-5) (Last week: 14). 

Next Up: Cincinnati, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Carolina, Philadelphia

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